Course he's willing to die. You think we do this kinda work 'cause we're scared to die?" So speaks Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) about his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), as the two stare down a posse of bad guys in Appaloosa, New Mexico, circa 1882. Cole and Hitch, who are good at killing but try to ply that skill for the right side of the law, are the new marshal and deputy, and that posse is determined to spring their boss, Randall Bragg, from jail. A rancher with no cattle but nefarious plans for taking over the town, Bragg (Jeremy Irons, king of suave menace) is also an itchy-fingered killer, having shot the last town marshal right off his horse. He'll surely hang, but only if Cole and Hitch can hold on to him until the trial — and we all know what slowpokes those traveling judges can be.
While they wait, Cole will fall hard for Allie (Renée Zellweger), a widow who wears her hair in a schoolmarm's bun but is about as faithful as a dance-hall working girl. She even puts the moves on Hitch, who kisses her back (as any cowboy would), and then pushes her away, declaring: "I'm with Virgil. And so are you."
If most of the dialogue in the pleasantly old-fashioned Appaloosa has a zingy precision, that's because Ed Harris, who directs from a screenplay he co-authored, is smart enough to quote — almost scene by scene and word by word — from Robert B. Parker's 2005 novel (to which a sequel, Resolution, has just been published). It could be said that Harris and his co-writer, Robert Knott, haven't done a whole lot of writing, but as Cole himself might say, there's no need to get all fancy with what's plain and true.
Appaloosa has the shifting boundaries of friendship and love on its mind, but this isn't a movie likely to raise comparisons to the tortured revisionism of Unforgiven or even to last year's hyperactive shoot-'em-up, 3:10 to Yuma — and that's surely fine by Harris. He and his collaborators are playing it straight with a timeless male fantasy — horse, hat, six-shooter — a traditional approach that will please moviegoers like my dad and yours: men who walked out of No Country for Old Men puzzled, feeling they'd been cheated out of a climactic gun battle between lawman and villain.
Harris keeps the shootouts coming — there's even a run-in with some canny Indians — but in this efficient Western, there are no close-ups of shifting eyes and nervous trigger fingers, just sudden, over-in-a-blink violence. Truth be told, it probably wouldn't have killed the director to belabor the tension a little more, but hey, real men don't drag things out.
A four-time Oscar nominee, including a Best Actor nod for Pollock, which he also directed, Harris specializes in portraying men whose excess machismo hasn't turned them mean, who watch and carefully measure the world before making their move. So Virgil Cole, who is slow and deliberate and also the fastest draw in the West, should be the perfect role for him. Yet, oddly, Harris often appears to be not quite centered within himself, as if Harris the director hadn't found a way to help Harris the actor be as still as Cole needs to be.
Holding one's body still in front of a movie camera while also giving the sense of a mind in motion is a specialized art, one with few masters. Paul Newman comes to mind, notably in his later career, as does Robert Duvall, a perennial movie cowboy who will surely wish that Appaloosa had come his way. And now, it would seem, there is Viggo Mortensen, who steals this film by doing nothing much more than lean against doorways and bar counters. Like Harris, Mortensen is a great listener, and good listeners — in life and in movies — barely move. That quality is just right for the role of Hitch, whose life hangs on Cole's next word and slightest gesture. It's an old truth, and not just about Westerns: When the talking stops, the dying begins.